My world of research in the areas of contemporary China studies and Chinese contemporary culture are ever expanding…where today, I was invited to take part in the first research networking lab for the AHRC funded project ‘Culture, Capital and Communication: Visualising Chinese Borders’ (CCC-VCB) at the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (CFCCA), Manchester. A series of five research laboratories and symposia that will take place over a 17 month period in Manchester (again), Hong Kong and Taiwan, will finish in a summative conference at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) in Spring 2016. The project aims:
“To produce a cross-disciplinary and multi-institutional body of research on the topic of the effects of border crossings upon art and design practice in Greater China.” – CCC-VCB
The principal investigator for the project is Dr Beccy Kennedy, based at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU), and co-investigator, Dr Ming Turner, who works at the Institute of Creative Industries Design at National Cheng Kung University, Tainan, Taiwan. Partner venues include Castlefield Gallery (where Lab 2 will take place) and CFCCA, and Community Museum Project with Hong Kong Polytechnic University in Hong Kong.
Participants for Lab 1 included Sarah Fisher (acting Director), Ying Tan (Curator) and Paul Stanley (Education and Engagement) from CFCCA; Dr Lu Peiyi, researcher and curator from Taipei, Taiwan, who wrote a piece of writing on socially engaged practice for CFCCA, which can be downloaded here; Kwong Lee from Castlefield Gallery; Dr Tongyu Zhou, curator, research associate and academic, and Professor Jim Aulich from MMU. Sarah introduced the day…
Sarah: Talking of my perception of how artists work together…in ‘Harmonious Society’, with artists from Taiwan, Hong Kong and China, it was surprising as to the artists’ social behaviour…they did not tend to mix, yet they work across all those locations. There was a grouping together from each country. I talked to the artists about this. I felt it related to a particular moment in time…a continual time of political pressures in terms of Taiwan, the Hong Kong protest, China tensions. There was clearly a sense of retreating into borders, in terms of discussion anyway. The potential for the CCC-VCB project is exciting…we must ask how can it be shaped in terms of broader knowledge sharing not just within the lab group? At the Asia Triennial Manchester 2014 symposium showed yesterday, the audience and speakers knew each other and it was a community, internal almost.
Beccy: Paul Gladston, who sadly couldn’t be here today, stated that it is similar in the international circuits. Chinese academics take a different approach, it’s more observational, less critical, where Paul is interested in creating a criticality around contemporary Chinese art. Academically, we are advanced here in the UK.
Me: In China, it is harder to engage the public audience in art and culture, therefore, at art openings and events, it is often the same faces, names and people that go and support. The circles in Chinese contemporary art and Chinese contemporary culture are I think smaller that the networks here in the UK. There are a certain breed, certain names cultivating Chinese contemporary art.
Discussion continued looking into how certain artists or academics have become icons of contemporary Chinese art and creating it’s history, such as Xu Bing. Where it is about the kudos of that person to bring status and recognition to your work.
Jim: It is the same in Communist Europe…is it a Master-student relationship?
Sarah: In my understanding there is a huge difference between Mainland China and Taiwan.
Ming: When talking about the phenomenon of the Triennial and Biennial in Asia…a student said if this kind of forum happened in my institute they’d ask why they are talking about this…
Beccy: They call it a course of “cultural industries”.
Sarah: I think this is interesting as there are different parameters as part of “cultural industries”.
Jim: When you are talking “cultural industries” you are talking business, which is not critical…it is, for the sake of argument, empirical.
Beccy: It is a border issue…the different ways in which countries produce and develop knowledge based on the schools of thought we follow. As Sarah says what might be critical in Taiwan, might not be critical in China. How much can we find out empirically in any other way? This research network is a springboard. These sessions over the next 17 months will lead onto other projects.
Jim: It is not dis-similar from projects when you are working outside of your own discipline – it’s about finding a common language.
Sarah: Around the table we have practitioners who have developed curatorial projects and more where their experience of some of the border issues will be very direct, very different. We have people who are very steeped in how we talk about this critically…this is a fruitful discussion. I am aware there is always language problems.
Kwong: Everyone around the room does not have, or wear, one hat…no one is a pure artist, curator, critic…if such a thing exists. In a way, that reflects borders. Borders are different, have different view points…in a way this group works on border politics. We need to recognise that it is not a unique, it is of people working together.
Sarah: There is much more recognition of knowledge working in different forms. There is a coming together of the university and cultural sector where they have different languages, it is about acknowledging these differences. There are practical issues relating to the artists that you are working with…even if the artist is not focussing on political issues or freedom of expression.
Jim: It is basically like he said, questions of freedom of expression are not an issue.
Me: The Western media has constructed a specific understanding of contemporary Chinese art, representation of China, largely through people like Ai Weiwei. This is not what contemporary Chinese art is about, it is just one aspect.
Discussion then focussed on how the curator Professor Jiang Jiehong of the ‘Harmonious Society’ exhibition, as part of the Asia Triennial Manchester 2014 festival, had been interviewed on the BBC for the news. He had been asked to give his viewpoint on Ai Weiwei but said he gave no opinion.
Ying: When you take no position, it pushes you to have a position in that. It is a catch 22.
Sarah: There is such a diverse practice that can be challenged. Ai Weiwei has become a brand which for many artists has become frustrating.
Paul: ‘Harmonious Society’ on the BBC was after a segment on Ai Weiwei. By creating this framework, it says you are either on one side or the other, with or against Ai Weiwei.
Jim: It embodies something in a specific personality. The way in which the caricature is deployed for a freedom of expression.
Tongyu: I think the problem is in China. There are many artists like him, but he is the chosen one, perhaps by the media, but he is the one put out there.
Sarah: I think that it is an issue for artists working in the UK too. They get the same questions. Artists from China that work in the UK. It is laziness from the media and us collectively in the UK…there is a sense of a lot happening in East Asia, the barriers mean that a lot of it is reduced.
Jim: Generally in the mainstream we don’t get a lot about art.
Ying: I can understand…yes he represents this freedom of speech, but imagine all the artists in England are represented by Damien Hirst…
Kwong: Antony Gormley…he has been pushed out into the world…and Grayson Perry is the people’s champion. Communication is a problem as it is in every sector. How do we then talk about it? Is there a dissemination? Getting the information out there parallels the dominance. I think of it as a micro-macro relationship with the issues here.
Beccy: Who would you say defines Taiwan art?
Ming: Wu Mali, who will represent Taiwan at the Venice Biennale next year, and Chen Chieh-jen. Those two.
Beccy: What do we think of Jeremy Deller representing England in the Venice Biennale?
Paul: Apparently the British Council were in Iran, Antony Gormley couldn’t show his work there due to Angels, but Tracey Emin could…her contexts were interesting to them.
Sarah: British artists are more broadly represented than Chinese art. It’s not that Chinese art doesn’t happen in the UK, it is seen as being impenetrable in terms of selling it in terms of identity and understanding.
Jim: There must be a Chinese equivalent to Antony Gormley?
Tongyu: The landscape of Chinese art changes…the price of art is astronomical…
Ying: Some Chinese artists are just figure heads. There for students to say that they have been taught by them like Ai Weiwei and Cai Guo-Qiang.
Kwong: Is there anything like the British Council in Taiwan, China…?
Beccy then went on to introduce the first research lab and it’s aim to focus on artists and their practice by asking:
- Which Chinese artists engage in border crossings in their work?;
- How many artists can we ascertain to have migrated from Mainland China to the Chinese islands of Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macao or vice versa? Is such data possible to assimilate?;
- What are the prevailing issues of ‘Chineseness” and the negotiation of island identities?
By working with these broad questions, the research is envisaged to develop further…with suggested themes of culture, capital and communication:
- What artwork engage with border crossings?
- Does artwork from the Hong Kong protests be relevant to this research?
- Can we list every Chinese artist who deals with border crossings?
- What issues around political and national identity are artists approaching through artistic practice and protest art?
- Is Chinese Firewall a hindrance to communicating this?
Ying: You can use VPN’s to get over the firewall…
Me: There is WeChat/Weixin which is as large or larger than Facebook. The fact that you can’t access “online” means that you focus more on what you are doing, on each other, on relationships, on people.
Ying: It is another layer of control that you feel…you can’t access what you want to access, not letting you have the ability.
Jim: Isn’t this “art” more differentiated than what we are looking at? Are we talking about art routed outside of China through official means for communication? Are we talking about art created on a small scale? Art not seen by many but viewed as authentic? Are we talking about the art promoted abroad but not allowed at home? It is that kind of work that needs to be done, before we can have these bigger conversations.
Beccy: Is looking at protest art enough here?
Me: I am not content with the word “protest”.
Kwong: What do you mean by “protest art”?
Beccy: It is the visual imagery that comes with protest…the Sunflower movement in Taiwan, the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong…a visual resource used to convey a political issue.
Jim: Another degree of separation…what structures do these artefacts inhabit?
Kwong: I have a problem with protest art as a phrase as it expresses a way of dominance…it is about finding a commonality that is not grounded in a subjective view. The direct protest art doesn’t always achieve what the protest want but there are other artists or works that do.
Sarah: If you frame it within “protest”…how do you consider all the contexts?
Beccy: So we cannot just look at “protest” art alone, but can it be seen as one part of art practice from China?
Kwong: Protest speaks locally…they are communicated out of each country.
Sarah: There is a lot more direct art in Hong Kong from protest than in Taiwan.
Lu: Activist art needs to have clear purpose, the aesthetic or thinking of art is less important…art from protest it is to make the social issue deeper. All we can see in protest is art and social movement…
Beccy: I’d call them protest objects…”art as activism”…socially engaged art more detached from direct action.
Jim: We need to come back to borders…
Lu: If we consider about the border issue, because of the two movements, it is in response to what China has done…if we consider this, it is a border issue…China-Taiwan…China-Hong Kong. During the Sunflower Movement, I was on site, my students were part of it, making it…they are responding to the reality. I visited Hong Kong two weeks ago visiting the site where it is interesting to compare the objects on site.
A discussion unfolded into the time frame of when to research with a decision on the 1980s, specifically 1985…the 80s is an important and crucial moment in Hong Kong, China and Taiwan. political system define the temperature…it plays off something…the aspiration that came with the 80s, a different view and regime. Interesting defining moments. The importance of the economic turn.
Jim: If we are not talking about “protest” art with other terms…are there artists that work on political contexts without talking out about the political? That are absurd…confuses the authorities…
It was then time to begin the short presentations by myself, Ming and Yu to look into artists and their practice in relation to crossing borders, border notions and protest. I spoke on the theme of ‘Crossing Borders: Art, “Agitprop” and the Umbrella Revolution’…based on the articles and critical perspectives I have recently written on art critiquing and from the Hong Kong protest/Umbrella Revolution. You can read the articles here:
- Hong Kong’s Visual Politics – A City Observation or Global “agitprop”?’ as part of the Transnational Dialogues Journal 2014, pp 16-19 – published November 2014.
- ‘“Wishing Knots” for Hong Kong’s future – interview’ for Art Radar Journal – published 31 October 2014.
In my presentation, I looked in depth at a handful of projects, specifically the collective artist projects ‘Wishing Knots: Great vision begins with wishes’ (2014), by Hong Kong artist and filmmaker Ye Yun and Japanese architect Nozomi Kanemitsu – a site-specific intervention in the Iowa Compound of Caochangdi Village in Beijing as part of Beijing Design Week (BJDW) 2014. Constructed on an eighteen by three metre metal half-dome frame, the colourful fabric installation invited audiences to walk through the space, gather a moment of silence, and then start a personal journey by making a wish regarding Hong Kong’s future and its relationship with China. The thoughtful wishes are encapsulated in the form of knots, tied directly onto the metal frame. It is seen as “a public space where a collective consciousness can take place.”…and ‘Stand By You: ‘ADD OIL’ Machine for HK Occupiers’ (www.occupier.hk/standbyyou). Created by a group of art school graduates, that wanted to keep a direct focus on the messages and work of the protesters. Using borrowed computers and projectors, they created an online platform for people from all over the world to leave messages of support. The website has been repeatedly hacked, then reclaimed by the students, where in the interim of the site being down, they collected messages via their Facebook page (www.facebook.com/standbyyouoc) until it was back online. Further perspectives on these works can be read in my articles cited above.
These two projects, I felt were good examples of art created in reaction and response to the Hong Kong protest/Umbrella Revolution as not only did they look internally on a local scale to the response of the people as the protest happens in their mutual locations of Beijing and Hong Kong, but they also ask and are placed in a more national and international engagement and context, creating continued dialogue and exchange. These notions linked in with recent conversations that I had with Wang Dong, Shenzhen curator of the He Xiangning Art Museum, during our panel discussion ‘Hong Kong: Art & Protests’ as part of the closing event for the Transnational Dialogues 2014 project at Museo MAXXI, Rome on 15 November 2014. Wang and I spoke about how the artists collectives in China and Hong Kong worked in different ecologies, where Wang saw Chinese artist communities as more intimate, personal and referencing the self, whereas Hong Kong art communities as more outward facing, more for the public and people. I’ll be writing more about our perspectives and the closing event for the Transnational Dialogues 2014 project in my next blog post.
I concluded by explaining the term “agitprop” that I have recently (re)defined in the context of the Hong Kong protest/Umbrella Revolution, and as a global social phenomenon…and a recent comment to an Instagram post that you can view here, an the response below, that I felt would resonate with the group and some of the issues we discussed that afternoon.
“Agitprop” (12 October 2014) by Rachel Marsden:
- It is the appropriation of a political event.
- It is a transcultural ecology specific to place.
- It is short-lived.
- It is socialist realism of the 21st Century.
- It is to challenge and provoke.
- It is art and culture from, and of, the people.
- It is “citizen as activist”.
- It is pro-democracy.
- It is the next generation.
- It is the human condition and the human connection.
- It is an on-going dialogue.
- It is a (online) global community, network and voice.
- It is a series of hashtags: #occupycentral, #hongkongprotests, #democracynow, #umbrellarevolution, #umbrellamovement, #occupyhk, #occupyhongkong, #hongkongdemocracy.
- It is hope.
Tongyu: Why do you say “Umbrella Revolution” not “Occupy Central”?
Me: “Occupy Central”, speaks of the location of the protest, specific to one central area in Hong Kong, whereas “Umbrella Revolution” is more specific to the happening and is recognised more globally.
Lu: The “occupy” movement is related to capitalism and globalism…”Occupy Wall Street” whereas the Umbrella REvolution/Movement is more China centred, more politicised.
Me: We need to think about the specificity of “occupy”…it’s global definition.
Discussion unfolded into “crossing borders” being influence by social media…Beccy said between theories of globalisation (time and space compressed with no borders) and digitisation (social media working across all borders, connecting worldwide). Wha is the actual coverage online of the Hong Kong protests?
Jim: It is hard for the government to clampdown on the “occupy” side of things.
Sarah: A portion think Taiwan is part of China.
Jim: How unified is China in, and of, itself?…In terms of identity? We are talking about China as a hemegenous unified thing.
Ming: It is controlled by Beijing.
Kwong: Culturally it is vast. In terms of Han Chinese there is not much difference.
Sarah: A lot of Taiwanese, I think, see themselves as descending from the Han Chinese culture.
Lu: The young Chinese see themselves as being Taiwanese…descending from aboriginal culture…starting from the 1990s. They have a need to distinguish themselves from China.
Sarah: The older generation would still say they are Chinese.
Lu: It is based on your background…
Tongyu: Chinese is more like people who live in the area. Han/Miao/Gaoxian Chinese are more ethnic.
Lu: It is a way to categorise people. For a lot of people they have a lot of consciousness. A lot of people in China have their own ideology of Chinese…and in Taiwan they think about their own identity…
Kwong: It is a contemporary issue we all face…a globalised thing…a cultural identity of Chinese with an allegiance of where you are from, sometimes these are conflicting. I wonder whether we are complicating it even more. We are recognising it already.
Lu: The issue of identity is important in this study and crossing borders…how do you see your self when you move across borders and how others see you.
Sarah: Criticism of elsewhere in the world is embraced by mainstream media in China…lots of news about protest and unrest in other areas of the world. From the outside, I just wonder with artists with whom the relationship to Ai Weiwei and other artists responses to Ai Weiwei, they want change but not revolution…it is interesting as it shows a difference.
Ying: So there is this thing of Northern China versus Southern China that I’ve always noticed with my parents. I grew up with Han Chinese…the rest were ethnic minority. Up until the age of 9 or 10 I didn’t know that anything else other than Communism existed.
Tongyu: I would say Capitalist not Communist…centralised control was always there, and listen to the authorities. I want to come back to the news as Sarah mentioned. When I came to the UK, I was shocked by the news as it was saying people were killed and murdered. When I went back to China, it was “live together harmoniously”…in China, the way they edit news, is they don’t tell people bad news, they tell them good, they cover it up. Ai Weiwei has a different background than other artists…he was in America in the 1980s, he is an American artist in a way. He speaks differently than other Chinese artists that went abroad. Maybe that’s why he speaks out. He was ok with authority in his early years.
Ming Turner gave a short presentation looking into ‘Taiwan’s History and it’s two essential artists – Wu Mali and Chen Chieh-jen. She referenced Taiwan’s complex historical periods and colonial periods of the Dutch conquest (1624-1661), Spanish occupation (1626-1641), Chinese settlement (1661-1895), Japanese colonisation (1895-1945) and Nationalist control, Martial Law period (1945-1987), and the memorials of Taiwan.
“To live in Taiwan today means to inhabit a fragmented and segmented world, where traditional cultures live alongside new Western ways of life and where identity is continuously put to a [test] and can be lost in an infinite accumulation of behavioural modes becoming an instance of new energy capable of creating interconnectedness, a reality where the elements of the past conjugate and converge with the evolved facts of the present.” – Wu Mali. ‘Wu Mali’ in n.paradoxa, No 5, 1997.
‘When we talk about borders in terms of China and Taiwan, they talk about the political, cultural, economic borders…then speaking of martial law. I was brought up to see Taiwan as central…as this picture on the left shows…
She referenced Taiwanese posters….the February 28 incident and the start of martial law:
“The February 28 Incident made Taiwanese history knowable not through its sufficiency as a historical cause per se, but through a much more complex, drawn-out process of meaning-making, iconization, deployment, and ritualization. Attending to this kind of ‘narratological causality’ challenges us to think about the intricate and intimate relationship between what we think of as the ‘fact’ of history and the process of their performative and narrative construction.” – Robert Edmondson. The February 28 Incident and National Identity (2002)
Then going on to speak on Nation, Identity and Imaged Communities:
“[I]t is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.” – Benedict Anderson. Imaged Communities, Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1983)
She also referenced the 4-week protest in March to April 2014, the Sunflower Revolution…
Artists referenced included the work of Wu Mali (b. 1957) who lives and works in Kaosiung and Taipei, Taiwan. He graduted from the National Art Academy in Dusseldorf then returning to Taiwan in 1985. She cited works ‘Birds Slide Over the Sky’ (1998)…
Are border lines between different countries? Immigrants in the same society? Class? Gender? This needs to be defined in the research. She then introduced Chen Chieh-jen (b. 1960 in Taoyuan, Taiwan) currently working in Taipei, Taiwan. Borders can touch the disciplines of an economy…of production…a consumer society…borders of global capitalism that could have developed Europe, China and India. She cited Chen Chieh-jen, ‘Empire’s Borders II’, 2010, video still. inspired by his own difficulties with getting a visa to enter the USA. It explores boundaries and borders, and the shifting geo-political landscape also reflecting on the history of the Taiwan-US relations. Ming then spoke of his next work made in response to his fathers memories of borders in the cold war ‘Empire’s Borders II – Western Enterprises Inc’ (2010), and ‘Factory’ (2003) about global capitalism, the change in production, and where production took place, the closure of factories in Taiwan as they moved to mainland China. ‘Through Chen’s characteristically charged re-enactments, the figures in the film encounter the ghosts of history and move through the vacuous spaces of struggle and absence, which echo present-day realities.’
Lu Peiyi gave a presentation next about her recent curatorial work, specifically the Shenzhen Sculpture Biennale 2014, curated by Marko Daniels. She introduced her talk by looking at travel from Taiwan, her personal visa issues of getting into China, then to Hong Kong, immigration, and the action and process of getting into China, and Hong Kong…these “borders” and “border crossings”, and the influence of the book ‘Chinese Whispers’ by Hsiao-Hung Pai on her experiences.
Borders always change in time over histories. She then spoke specifically about artists from the 8th Shenzhen Sculpture Biennale on the theme of ‘We have never participated’…
…including Lai Chih-Sheng piece ‘Border’ (2014) about the relationship and borders between artist and audience, worker and artist…the worker made this artwork…also the physical body and the mental mind and state…you will have a lot of doubts as to where is the border, how can I cross the border?
‘Opening Up’ (2014) by Hector Zamora, who makes the border very clear, even though we open up, we close it down…
‘Production Line – Made in China, Made in Taiwan’ (2014) by Huang Po-Chih…an economic shifting line between Taiwan and China, China and Hong Kong…capitalist borders, the change in economics and how this changes a personal situation.
‘Sea Breeze’ (2014) by Li Jinghu. This artist collected workers bowls and eating vessels…he collected thousands of them. “Sea Breeze” means then are originally from inside of China, they have never seen the sea before. When they were in Shenzhen they wanted to see what the sea looked like…as they worked in factories they never had the chance to see…here now seeing in the exhibition space. The border is not here the national border, it is the internal border, the immigrant border of the countryside to the city.
‘New Butterfly Dream’ (2014) by Wu Mali. This piece is about marriage…about finding a partner for their children. Immigrant stories from different cities, different advertisement places. Planned a marriage square in OCAT but it didn’t work out.
‘Realm of Reverberations’ (2014) Chen Chieh-jen shown in Shenzhen for the first time. Not censored though worried about this as the animation contains lots of images of protest. It talks of art and social movement…and what can happen after…what can art do or mean after a social movement…to raise the issue again, to make them thing, to create memory. It takes time to reflect.
‘The Ruined Islands’ (2014) by Yao Jiu-Chung. ‘These black and white photographs of the ruins both reveal a hidden reality and preserve a fast-disappearing now. Aside from serving as real evidence of “presence,” they force the viewer to “see” not only the irreversible decline of these ruins, but also to make connections between these ruins and their surrounding sociopolitical circumstances, pushing the viewer to explore the wordless, helpless causes behind the creation of these ruins.’ Read a fantastic essay by her here ‘The Power of Action: Yao Jui-chung and the Mirage – Disused Public Property in Taiwan’.
CCC-VCB aims to by fulfil the following objectives:
- To interrogate the differences between the promotion, communication, theoretical content and production of art and design practices in mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong working under OCTS (One Country, Two Systems) via recorded laboratory based research, discursive exchange and research papers delivered at the symposium.
- To endeavour to frame these differences, discursively, within the context of late-Communist and capitalist modes of production and metaphorical border crossings.
- To interrogate cultural differences both experienced and produced in relation to Chinese, Taiwanese and Hong Kong artists through laboratory based archival research, visual presentations and discussion.
- To identify artists who have crossed borders between mainland China, Taiwan and/or Hong Kong and to analyse their productive outputs through knowledge exchange and by using visual and information resources at the Art Gallery based venues (Castlefield Gallery and CFCCA) and the university libraries (MMU, Hong Kong Polytechnic University and National Cheng Kung University).
- To collate the research findings into qualitative datasets about artists from these regions to be placed on the MMU online archive repository (http://www.e-space.mmu.ac.uk/e-space/).
- To traverse disciplinary and international boundaries between the professions, practices and histories of art and design, generating laboratory discussion, a symposium on the topic (at MMU) and a new transnational and cross-institutional, networked community on Chinese Cultural Border crossings.
- To use the network to plan publications and further symposia and/or an exhibition on the subject.